Daily Archives: August 7, 2007

DAMASCUS, ENGLAND, WALWORTH FARCE

THEATRE
Damascus
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 5)
England
5 stars ****
Traverse at the Fruitmarket Gallery (Venue 359)
The Walworth Farce
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 5)

THE GUILT OF THE PRIVILEGED, the rage of the oppressed. There’s no bigger subject for drama, particularly in a global village increasingly divided by extremes of wealth and poverty; and this year’s Traverse programme begins to exercise a magnificent grip on it with these three fine shows, covering tremendous range of theatrical styles. David Greig’s Damascus, which premiered at the Traverse on Sunday night in front of a packed international audience, is that rarest of things, a well-made and hugely entertaining contemporary comedy – set not in a drawing-room, but in the foyer of a small Damascus hotel – which shades persuasively into an ending that offers a glimpse of infinite tragedy, despair and horror.

Its hero, a middle-class Scotsman called Paul, arrives in Damascus to try to sell a new English-language teaching course to the Syrian ministry of education; and soon finds himself locked in profound, complex and erotically charged discussions with his Syrian opposite number, the beautiful Muna, not only about the social and political values of their respective societies, but about the personal patterns of sadness, regret and hope captured in the verbs Paul’s course seeks to teach. There’s also Paul’s relationship with the increasingly desperate young desk clerk, Zakaria, who yearns for the west. And there’s the beautiful and gifted Ukrainian cocktail-lounge pianist Elena, a chorus-figure full of dark wisdom and bitter scorn, whose music ranges from Arab electro-pop to bits of Schnittke, and whose presence provides the key to the play’s success in modulating between comedy and tragedy.

All of this is perfectly captured in a beautiful, simmeringly tense production by Philip Howard, deploying a perfectly-chosen cast of five led by Paul Higgins as Paul, and flowing across Anthony MacIlwaine’s understated but fine foyer set, with its big digital screen pumping out images of conflict in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. The play is often almost too light-heartedly funny, as Paul blunders through his first contact with an Arab culture, falling into all the man-traps of implicit racism set by everyday conversational English; but Greig’s language, here, is also often as rich in thought, feeling, and intelligent self-reflection as anything he has written. Essentially, Paul is on a crash course in the betrayal of Arab socialism, and of all the secular, modernising forces in the Middle East, by a west that increasingly views the whole Muslim world as “fundamenalist”. And as Greig finally and neatly twists our expectations about who is the hero of the story, and who the chief mourner, we all follow Paul in learning more than it’s comfortable to know, about the despair and humiliation of millions in the world beyond the west, and the violence which follows, as night follows day.

And as if to complement Greig’s full-scale, two-and-a-half hour play with a shorter, deeper and more formally challenging response to the same issue, Tim Crouch’s England – staged by the Traverse at the Fruitmarket Gallery – takes precisely an hour to unfold a tale of inequality at its sharpest and most obscene. In the first half of the show, Crouch and his co-performer Hannah Ringham play two halves of an ordinary, modern English person madly in love with his/her boyfriend, a wealthy Dutch-American with a sharp eye for the market in collectable contemporary art.

The speaker becomes ill with a severe progressive heart disease, and faces death; but then – in the second half, performed in a different space – is seen reborn, after an expensive private heart transplant. At the core of the play is the question of where the heart came from. And as the question gradually becomes more pressing, and the inner dialogue between these two “selves” more stressed, conflicted and tinged with horror, Crouch’s wonderful text begins to reveal layer after layer of poetic depth; not only as a study of basic global injustice, but also as a reflection on an idea of national identity, character and history – of Englishess itself – increasingly swamped by the sheer power of 21st century global markets, and turning to dust and ashes in the mouth.

And back at the Traverse, meanwhile, there’s Enda Walsh’s extended day-glo nightmare of a Walworth Farce, about as brilliant and savage a final comment on the inner life of a defeated nation as Irish theatre, in all its magnificence, could have hoped to produce. In an unkempt tip of a high-rise flat off the Walworth Road in London, an Irishman from Cork and his two grown sons are engaged in the strangest kind of collective madness, endlessly re-enacting a farcical, innocuous and fundamentally lying version of the events of the day when the father finally left Cork for London. Like a raging parody of an actor-manager, the father punishes the sons with extreme violence whenever they deviate from the tale; while the voice of Bing Crosby singing Irish Lullaby croons from a bashed-up cassette-player.

The whole play is an incredibly high-risk enterprise, presented with terrific farcical flair for Druid Theatre of Galway by director Mikel Murfi and a brilliant four-strong cast. And in the end – for those with the stomach to stick with this mind-blowing combination of Marx Brothers madness and exploded Irish cliche – the audience finds itself witnessing an immensely bleak and telling vision of the devastation that ensues when a nation lives by telling soothing lies about itself; denying its own adult rage and violence, in favour of the image of a harmless nation of poets and theatrical folk, telling funny tales to make all the western world laugh like a drain.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 117

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